A Muslim Democratic Club Rises in New York

20130314 2008141 A Muslim Democratic Club Rises in New York

Club organizers.

New York City’s first Muslim club is looking to have an impact on the mayor’s race. And organizers of the group, the Muslim Democratic Club of New York, cited current Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policies–notably, the city police department’s controversial Muslim surveillance efforts–as a key motivating factor as they seek to ensure his successor follows a new path.

“The mayor has been a problem for this community,” one club leader, Ali Najmi, told Politicker. “We want to send a message to City Hall that the next mayor needs to treat us differently.”

But the club’s first ever meeting, held in a posh Midtown lounge Thursday night, also focused on even more local political issues. Mr. Najmi, along with Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour and other organizers, led a PowerPoint presentation for the dozens of attendees about the untapped voting strength of Muslim Democrats in the city, keying on City Council districts in Brooklyn and Queens where Muslims live in significant numbers.

The ultimate goal of the club, which will begin fundraising soon, is to build a field operation powerful enough to influence elections throughout New York City. Influence for its own sake, though, is not the goal. In addition to the surveillance issue, MDCNY is currently pushing for the inclusion of Muslim holidays in the public school calendar. Foreign policy issues are not on the agenda.

“Those are the two main issues that we hear already on Twitter, on Facebook, from our community and the centers that we work for. As you know, many of us are in the grassroots community. Those are going to be our two big issues and the usual, health care, immigration,” Ms. Sarsour said.

Two Democratic mayoral candidates, Comptroller John Liu and Sal Albanese, addressed the club, as well as the city’s only Muslim elected official, Councilman Robert Jackson, also a Manhattan borough president candidate. Mr. Liu in particular has been a vociferous critic of the NYPD.

“I think more than any other community, the Muslim community has some very severe challenges and important issues the city has to deal with,” Mr. Liu said. “We have ongoing issues of surveillance of people just because of their religious faith- that’s not right, we should put an end to that. Kids and families have to choose between going to school and observing important holidays in the Muslim faith- that has to change also.”

Through a tally of Muslim-seeming surnames in voter rolls (religions are not counted in the Census), MDCNY determined that there are a total of 105,000 registered Muslim voters in New York City. 70 percent of that total, according to MDCNY, are Democrats and if 100 percent of Muslims voted, they would be 10 percent of the primary electorate. Mr. Najmi identified five City Council districts where the most Muslims lived. To the surprise of attendees, the district with the most Muslims was not Councilman Vincent Gentile’s Bay Ridge district or Councilman Peter Vallone Jr.’s Astoria district. It was Councilman Mark Weprin’s eastern Queens district, typically perceived as being white and suburban. Four out of the top five most Muslim districts are in Queens.

“We are swing voters,” the organizers emphasized, pointing out that 6,500 Muslim voters live in Mr. Weprin’s district. Mr. Weprin won his 2009 Democratic primary with less than 4,500 votes. The goal of the club, however, isn’t to depose incumbents. A long-term goal will be to train candidates of their own, but for now they will focus on raising money, hiring full-time staff, reaching out to ethnic media and trying to tap into the power of the Muslim electorate. The membership of the club will guide their turnout operations and Ms. Sarsour said they were going to target two council races this year, but club organizers did not specify which two.

“Even if we were 5 percent of the electorate, we could be a swing voter on the citywide level and guaranteed swing voters in specific districts in the City Council,” Ms. Sarsour said.